When they came for him, it suddenly didn't matter how rich or famous or handsome a man he might be. When they came in the middle of the night, two cops standing in the doorway signaling that life as he knew it was finished, the championship ring and that full trophy case in the basement didn't matter anymore. This was a nightmare.
In the months following his arrest last April 10, Mark Chmura found himself waking with a start at all hours, waiting in the dark of his big house for the sounds of them coming back. "Whenever the doorbell rang?" he says. "I'd absolutely freak. I'll never forget that as long as I live: That doorbell ringing at two o'clock in the morning. The doorbell rings, and I put my clothes on and look out the back window. I open the door, and it's, ' Mr. Chmura, may we come in? We have a warrant for your arrest.' I thought it was my buddies playing a stupid joke on me. Then they said, 'sexual assault,' and they said her name, and then I knew it wasn't a joke anymore."
Chmura is almost relaxed as he speaks now. He's sitting in the basement of his Hartland, Wis., house, legs slung over the arm of his chair, shoes off. It's Sunday afternoon, just two hours after he broke down sobbing at a news conference while apologizing to the public and promising that "nothing like this will ever happen again," and less than a day after he heard the two kindest words in American jurisprudence. Until he was found not guilty on charges of sexual assault and child enticement late Saturday night in Waukesha, Wis., Chmura had almost forgotten what it's like to live without tension. In the first months after his arrest, he says, the emotional strain left him fleeing to the nearest empty room to cry, requiring heavy doses of the antidepressants Prozac and Xanax and seeming so overwhelmed that friends removed his handgun from his house for fear he might commit suicide. "Yeah, they took my weapon," Chmura says, "but I don't care how bad life is; nothing is worth taking your life over."
Still, until last Saturday, the 31-year-old Chmura wasn't sure what his life would be. Charged on May 15 with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl—who had worked for him and his wife, Lynda, as a babysitter for their two children, ages 4 and 6—in a bam-room during a postprom party, Chmura, a three-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Green Bay Packers, faced a maximum of 40 years in prison and the prospect of being labeled, as defense attorney Gerald Boyle put it, "a pedophile." He lost 20 pounds, his hair began to fall out, and for six weeks after his arrest he almost never left his house. His older son, Dylan, came home from kindergarten and asked if it was true that his father had been in jail, and Mark had to say yes. When he finally ventured out, he disguised himself behind a goatee, sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low.
It wasn't enough. "Everywhere I go, I've got to worry about what cook is spitting in my food," he says he told his friends. "When I go to Communion, I've got to hang my head because people are looking at me like I'm some child molester."
Though Chmura's accuser is still mulling a civil suit against him, the 12-person Waukesha County Court jury cleared him on the criminal charges after deliberating for just two hours and 15 minutes. Chmura says that a handful of NFL teams have already contacted his agent, Eric Metz. Chmura is sure he'll play football somewhere next season, and for someone who just six months ago wanted never to suit up again because he was terrified at the thought of entering a stadium and being "attacked" by abusive fans, someone who was bitter at the Packers for cutting him on June 5 and rooted against them last season, this is progress. Asked at his house on Sunday when he expects to start getting his old life back, Chmura smiles and says, "Today."
Rebuilding his reputation will be another task. Viewed through the lens of the 11 days of courtroom proceedings, no one—not the parade of boozing and/or obnoxious kids from Catholic Memorial High in Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb of 60,000, a 15-minute drive from Hartland; not the ambitious and ham-handed prosecutor, Paul Bucher; not Chmura's accuser, who testified openly to her membership in a group of teenage girls who called themselves the SBs (for Sexy Bitches) and tripped over inconsistencies in her story-came off looking noble. Certainly Chmura did not. Regardless of the verdict, he must live with the fact that one night last spring he got drunk and hung out in his underwear with teenage girls in a hot tub at 3:30 a.m. "If you can go to jail for being stupid, I belong in jail," he says.
"I disappointed a lot of people, and for that I'm really sorry," Chmura said at his press conference on Sunday, "because I am a role model, O.K.? I let a lot of people down." Indeed, while the case boiled down to a he-said, she-said showdown in which he said nothing and she said too much, the subtext of hypocrisy will haunt Chmura.
It was he, after all, who had set himself up as a paragon of conservative values during the Packers' heyday of the mid-1990s. A Catholic who served as an altar boy from childhood through high school, he famously refused to attend a '97 White House reception for the Super Bowl champs hosted by President Bill Clinton. "I knew it all along," Chmura told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. "It doesn't really say much for society and the morals [ Clinton] sets forth for our children." Ten days before his arrest Chmura attended a Waukesha rally for George W. Bush. Someone snapped a picture: Mark and Lynda and the future president.
That set up the classic tale: a hero hoist with his own petard. It was covered with all the trimmings of a big-time sports event. Court TV was there live. A Waukesha pub played the broadcast, offering one-dollar shots every time a lawyer objected. Just hours before the verdict came in, a group of tailgaters huddled in the courthouse parking lot, roasting brats and rehashing the juicy details.